Political Animal


December 27, 2012 9:29 AM Where Seniority Is Still King

By Ed Kilgore

In case you missed it because of time zone issues, Hawai’i Gov. Neil Abercrombie has appointed his lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, to fill the Senate seat of the late Daniel Inouye.

This surprised many mainline observers, myself included, since Inouye asked Abercrombie to let U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him very shortly before his death. And going in that direction would have also allowed Hawaii to join California, New Hampshire, and Washington (with Maine falling off the list in January) as states represented in the upper chamber by two women.

There may have been a number of factors that influenced Abercrombie to choose Schatz rather than Hanabusa. With Mazie Hirono having been elected in November to succeed Daniel Akaka in the state’s other Senate seat, a Hanabusa appointment would have meant Hawaii would be represented not only by two women, but by two Japanese-Americans, which might have been an issue in this ethnically diverse state (though that was the situation for fourteen years when Spark Matsunaga was in the Senate alongside Inouye). Hawaii also has an unusual special election law with no primaries, so perhaps Abercrombie considered Schatz (a former state party chair) a stronger bet to keep Democrats united.

But as Brother Benen noted this morning, the factor that Schatz himself mentioned was his age: he’s only 40, whereas Hanabusa is 61. This matters because the ability to accumulate seniority is a publicly appreciated asset in this state, which quite naturally has a bit of a colonial attitude towards Washington DC that is in part attributable to its physical location and in part to the economic role federal spending (particularly defense spending) plays in the local economy. Incredibly, Hawaii has had only five U.S. Senators in its 52 years as a state, and one of them (Inouye’s predecessor Oren Long) only served for three years. Inouye’s death and Akaka’s retirement wiped out 62 years of Senate seniority, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Hawaiians are feeling a mite insecure.

Having grown up in the Deep South when seniority was still a very big deal there, I can relate. When my own boss in the Senate, Georgia’s Sam Nunn, first ran in 1972, his youth (he was 34 when elected) and therefore his capacity for seniority was a major part of his campaign message. You don’t much hear that sort of talk in the South anymore (though it may make a comeback if as appears likely the region becomes as reliably Republican up and down the ballot as it once was Democratic), but a focus on seniority seems to be alive and well in Hawaii.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • boatboy_srq on December 27, 2012 9:50 AM:

    It's arguable that part of the frustration radiating from the Teahad is the realisation that seniority still matters in Congress, and most Teahadists just aren't senior enough to put forward Teahadist dogma - er, "Conservative policy agenda items" - for general consideration without it (them?) being leavened by conventional politicking.

  • c u n d gulag on December 27, 2012 10:06 AM:

    No matter who he picked, there wouldn't be a special election until 2014. And then, that person wouldn't have to run again for the full term, until 2016.

    I'd have preferred a progressive woman, but, oh well. This guy seems, from what I've heard about him, to be ok.
    Though I'm sure, no matter who became Senator, keeping military appropirations money coming to Hawaii, is one of the paramount concerns.

  • DB on December 27, 2012 10:10 AM:

    There's another, entirely different, seniority reason which strikes me as probably the main operating factor here: Hanabusa's seniority in the House. Though she's not tremendously senior, and though Democrats are in the minority, she has some heft on committees, and Abercrombie may not have wanted to lose that for his state.

    And as for future elections, perhaps Abercrombie is less concerned about future Senate elections than about the special election that would be needed in Hanabusa's district were she to be made senator. Because of the open, jungle elections in Hawaii for midterm vacancies, the Democrats could lose the seat: it's happened there before.

    Against that, two women senators, and two Japanese-American senators, would be nice to have, but it shouldn't outweigh serious political calculations. (What it should outweigh is any nonsense about how the white male has more gravitas or something than the minority woman, but I haven't seen anybody offering that in this case.)

  • Bacon on December 27, 2012 11:06 AM:

    I thought one of Bush's most clever moments was nominating John Roberts. We're stuck with that guy for two more decades at least.

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  • Greg on December 27, 2012 11:44 AM:

    If he'd appointed Hanabusa, the entire delegation would have been freshmen. I have to think that would make a difference.

  • TS on December 27, 2012 2:13 PM:

    Abercrombie also specifically mentioned that appointing Hanabusa would leave her seat vacant during any upcoming "fiscal cliff" votes, and every vote may be needed.

    On the policy side, Schatz has a strong environmental record and should be an effective voice on global warming and other similar issues. Before he first ran for office, he created a youth volunteer environmental group, and worked positively on land use, water, etc in the state legislature, where he rapidly rose to leadership roles. I also admire him leaving a safe seat in the state house to run a NGO, giving him first hand experience in an important community organization.

  • rayspace on December 27, 2012 3:03 PM:

    It's 72 years, not 62--50 for Inouye and 22 for Akaka (1990-2012).